Time for a Mueller report reality check: Only a small segment of America’s most powerful have read it.
President Donald Trump can’t give a straight answer about the subject. More than a dozen members of Congress readily admitted to POLITICO that they too have skipped around rather than studying every one of the special counsel report’s 448 pages. And despite the report technically ranking as a best-seller, only a tiny fraction of the American public has actually cracked the cover and really dived in.
“What’s the point?” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who like many other lawmakers recently interviewed in the Capitol acknowledged they hadn’t completed their own comprehensive read.
The result, say lawmakers, historians and cultural critics, is a giant literacy gap in the country when it comes to the most authoritative examination into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump obstructed that investigation. And closing that gap could determine whether Democrats feel they have public backing to launch impeachment proceedings against the president. That’s why numerous Democrats, activists and pro-impeachment advocates say it’s up to them to teach Americans what the Mueller report says, even if there’s already considerable public fatigue with the issue.
The education campaign runs the gamut, from celebrities staging a dramatic Broadway reading of Mueller’s most juicy findings on obstruction of justice, to House Democrats pulling Robert Mueller back from retirement next week to publicly testify, hoping that live television cameras can illuminate what the dense government report cannot.
“You can’t expect people to read lengthy documents in large numbers. They have their own lives to lead,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, the powerful New York congressman who has described his decision on whether to launch impeachment proceedings as hinging in no small part on public opinion.
The challenge in getting anyone to study the Mueller report is an uphill one, especially after Trump and his GOP allies made their own early play in mid-April to cement the “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra. And getting lawmakers to read beyond the Mueller report’s executive summary, media reports or their own staffers’ notes is no simple task.
“It’s tedious,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has a copy of Mueller’s work in a large stack of things she turns to for her daily reading. She said she started right away on the report’s first volume detailing the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians while on a trip to Vietnam, and as of late June she was still plugging along. “In fairness, I haven’t picked it up in at least two weeks.”
“I’ve got a lot on my reading list,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said as he explained why he’s avoided one of the most highly anticipated reports in recent American history.
Republicans aren’t alone. “I’d be pretty reckless to say I have a full comprehension,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). “I need to spend some more time with it.”
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) also said he hadn’t read the whole report. “It is what it is,” he said when asked why.
“I didn’t have to read it. I lived it,” offered Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential running mate. “I intended to read cover to cover, but there was nothing in it that was a surprise to me.”
The Mueller report has of course hardly been ignored. The Washington Post’s version — published with an introduction written by its Mueller beat reporters — has held a spot on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 10 consecutive weeks. More than 357,000 copies of the report released by three publishers had been sold as of late June, according to NPD Bookscan.
It’s also been a subject of fascination and obsession for cable news and provided days of comedic fodder for late night hosts.
Yet a CNN poll conducted in late April found only 3 percent of respondents saying they had gotten all the way through the report. Several House Democrats interviewed in recent weeks have taken that figure and extrapolated it out to suggest an estimated 9 million people have read all of the report, which some say seems suspiciously overstated.
“I think that’s really high,” Murkowski said. “I think they’re lying to you.”
But reading all the way through Mueller’s findings — SPOILER ALERT: Mueller shows how Trump may have obstructed justice — has helped many reach their own conclusions about what should happen next.
Breaking out first from the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign pack, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during an early May speech on the Senate floor explained how she went “cover to cover, every page” within about 24 hours of the report’s release, and then decided that Congress should impeach Trump.
Similar stories have come from the likes of Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman Democrat from South Florida who said she decided to back impeachment proceedings after she “spent countless hours” reading the report, studying the special counsel’s evidence and listening to recent testimony from legal experts.
J.W. Verret, a George Mason University law school professor who worked on the Trump transition, had a similar conversion. He called for Congress to start impeachment proceedings after poring over the report. “I mean, I read it twice. That was my impression the first 10 pages in, and I think we have to take it seriously,” he said in a recent CNN interview.
Others said reading the Mueller report brought them to different conclusions. Rep. John Ratcliffe R-Texas), a former federal prosecutor, recalled in a late April interview on Fox News that after going through the report, his main thought was “that the one person that was always being truthful about [a potential Trump-Russia conspiracy] was Donald Trump.”
Reading the Mueller report — or not— has even become its own political cudgel among Democrats.
Briana Urbina, a Democrat running against Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in 2020, criticized the House majority leader for declaring impeachment was “not worthwhile at this point” soon after the redacted version of the Mueller report had been published. In a Baltimore Sun letter to the editor, Urbina wrote that Hoyer had “jumped the gun with a public statement denouncing impeachment without even having read the Mueller report, within hours after it was released.” A Hoyer spokesperson responded that the congressman has read “significant portions” of the report and had discussed the special counsel’s findings with other members and staff.
MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough, meantime, unloaded on Mueller last month for acting like he was “above coming to Capitol Hill and testifying for Americans” and instead directing Americans to read the report.
“It’s outrageous,” Scarborough vented.
Trump has hardly been consistent with his own answer about whether he’s read the report. “Yes, I did, and you should read it too,” the president replied when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked last month. But he was less categorical a few days later: “Let me tell you, I read much of it. I read the conclusion,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd.
The Mueller report has its share of promoters. House Democrats dedicated more than 13 hours to a public reading in mid-May. PBS packed the report’s key findings into a 30-minute special. A small theater troupe in Bangor, Maine, tried last month reading it aloud to an audience that a local columnist reported “never grew beyond a handful.”
Journalists are making pleas to the public. “At nearly 450 pages, it’s a bit of a lift. But it’s a fast read,” Tribune News Service columnist John Crisp wrote in late April. “Read it yourself,” Scott McGrew, an NBC anchor in San Francisco, said during an on-air segment that ran the night after the report’s release.
Celebrities have gotten in on the act, too. Tom Steyer’s pro-impeachment group cut a two-minute video of actors pretending they were auditioning for a Mueller movie by reading lines from the report. Another video directed by Rob Reiner promoting the report closes with Martin Sheen imploring viewers, “Please just read it for yourself.” And the reading on Broadway last month staged the report’s obstruction section in 10 acts, divvying out parts to well-known actors like John Lithgow as Trump, Kevin Kline as Mueller and Jason Alexander as Chris Christie.
More attempts to keep the Mueller report alive are coming. There’s an 11-hour reading of the obstruction section scheduled to start at noon on Thursday in Washington, D.C. A graphic novel version of the report is coming in April 2020. The Mueller Book Club, a group that includes Public Citizen, Common Cause and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are pushing for more public readings across the country.
These attempts to turn the report into something beyond a staid government document can help with public understanding. “It’s an easier way to make the medicine go down,” said Kurt Andersen, host of Public Radio International’s Studio 360.
Don Ritchie, the retired Senate historian, likened recent attempts to dramatize the report to a humorous parlor game associated with one of the key moments from Watergate. “I recall it was popular at parties in the ’70s to read the Nixon tape volume aloud and guess the ‘expletives deleted,’” he said. “A dedicated minority will read every word and the rest will rely on news headlines at best.”
Mueller’s report will have a chance to come to life next Wednesday when the former special counsel treks to Capitol Hill for a day of public testimony. Some key Republicans and Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have even said they are rereading the report ahead of the occasion.
Even though Mueller has vowed to stick to the confines of the report during his hearings, many argue that his appearance will educate millions of people who never plan to crack open the report.
Steve Benen, a producer on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” argued in a recent blog post that “millions” of Americans can still learn about the Mueller report’s findings even if the former special counsel sticks to a tight script during his testimony.
“Much of the country would benefit, even if he did nothing more than read from the darned thing,” Benen wrote. He recounted how one pro-Trump voter told a network reporter that she learned of the Mueller report’s damaging information only after attending a town hall event in Michigan for Rep. Justin Amash, the only non-Democrat to back impeachment.
Because of the way most people learn about complex subjects, the emphasis on actually reading the report may be a bit misplaced from a political perspective, said Elaine Kamarck, a longtime Democratic operative who worked in the Clinton White House and Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
“Frankly, the damage has been done,” said Kamarck, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think it’s a waste. I do think it’s good to put this together in a coherent narrative. That is useful. But will it move the needle on Republican voters? I don’t think so.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are split on whether it’s worth it to keep on reading.
“I haven’t thought about it, to be honest with you,” said Sen. Scott, who explained he’d read “lots” of the report on his electronic device when it came out.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he didn’t read the report and had no plans to start now. “We’ve been a little bit busy,” he said.
Murkowski said she’s still working on it because of a personal vow to hold back in weighing in until she was done.
“I think most will read like the Reader’s Digest condensed version,” she said. “Um, I do think it’s important to read it, and that’s why I’m poring through it. I just don’t have 18 hours that I can just sit down and give it a read. So, I get 15 minutes here and 25 minutes there. But I do think it’s important to read and that’s why I’m going to commit to it.”
Several lawmakers said they didn’t need to read all of Mueller’s findings because their own work on Capitol Hill had also involved investigating the 2016 election.
“I would tell you, have I read every single page? No. Have I gone though it? Yes. Some sections more so than others,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who noted as a member of the Intelligence Committee during the last Congress, some of it was “old news” and he could “flip through quickly.”
“I could get to sections saying, ‘Know that, know that,’” he said.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) didn’t hide from the question. “I knew there’d have to be a time that I’d be asked. So I wish I had read it before you asked. But in all honesty, I haven’t.”
He explained that he didn’t dig in because “there’s no drive and push in my district specifically for impeachment.” And he questioned why Trump could even be investigated for obstruction of justice when he wasn’t accused of an underlying crime.
About two hours later, a Shimkus spokesman emailed with a message from the congressman: “He asked me to let you know that he’s reading the Mueller Report.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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